Seven games remain in the regular season and as the Eagles returned to work on Monday at the NovaCare Complex after their bye week, the defense received a boost. Two, actually. And in the war of attrition that is the NFL regular season, every gain counts.
The first gain is one the Eagles made by signing veteran linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. He's played in 77 career games, he's won a Super Bowl (with Baltimore), and he's here to add depth and learn all three linebacker positions and, hey, the Eagles could use the depth.
For a team that lost starting middle linebacker Jordan Hicks for the season with an Achilles tendon injury, the Eagles have more than gotten by the last couple of weeks with Joe Walker starting in the middle, Mychal Kendricks playing some of the best football of his career at the WILL position, and with Nigel Bradham as steady as he comes on the strong side. Najee Goode has given the Eagles security depth at all three positions, but adding somebody like Ellerbe, who has been a quality player in his injury-scarred career, certainly aids the cause.
The other gain was the news that cornerback Ronald Darby is back on the practice field at full tilt, ready to jump back into the starting lineup and with the full intention of doing so. A lot can happen between now and Sunday, but Darby has made the kind of progress the Eagles wanted to see. The Eagles' defensive backfield has performed well in Darby's absence, giving the team the good fortune to ease Darby back the right way after that gruesome ankle injury suffered in Week 1 at Washington.
So what kind of player do the Eagles get back with Darby on the field? We had a taste of Darby from the preseason after the Eagles acquired him in a trade, but in case you need a refresher, here is defensive backs coach Cory Undlin talking about Darby last week.
"I think you're going to see what you saw early on with the guy," Undlin said. "Tough, competitive guy. He can change direction, he can run, he can flip his hips, he can play square. He's patient. He's a smart player.
"Obviously, we're all looking forward to him coming back. When that time is, it is. When Chris Peduzzi (Eagles director of sports medicine/head athletic trainer) tells me it's time to put him out there, we'll do it and let him play some ball again."
, both in the slot and as an outside cornerback, and with Jalen Mills starting and playing so well in his second season, the Eagles have been able to move their pieces around and have success. They've been able to get great mileage from rookie cornerback Rasul Douglas, who has played 58 percent of the snaps in the weeks since Darby went down.
How it works when Darby is all the way back – whether it's at Dallas or in the weeks to come – remains to be seen. But Darby is going to be a starter, and he's going to add a level of athleticism that gives the Eagles a cornerback who can run with the fastest receivers in the game, down the stretch and, hopefully, in the postseason. If the Eagles have Darby and Mills on the outside and Robinson in the slot, with Malcolm Jenkins on the field in a quasi-linebacker role and Corey Graham at safety, that's a lot of versatility in the cover game. Add in the way the Eagles rush the quarterback from the front four and you've got a pass defense built for success.
The mood at One NovaCare Way on Monday was pure energy and optimism. The bye week was extremely timely and well received and the Eagles understand the picture: They've got a three-game lead in the NFC East. They have a seven-game winning streak with the Dallas Cowboys waiting on Sunday. The Cowboys are going to be in desperation mode on Sunday night, and the Eagles have to match that intensity.
With all of that, the Eagles became a better football team on Monday with the addition of Ellerbe and the return of Darby. The defense gained depth and playmaking ability. It was a very good way to begin the week, indeed.